MY CULTURAL LIFE: Geoff Hill

The intrepid travel writer on meeting Leonard Cohen, catching trains and traveling with a smile

When did you first fall in love with travel? 
When I went Inter-Railing at the end of first year at Queen's University. Now it seems like about 1846 and I'm sure the trains were steam, but in fact it was 1975. I remember distinctly taking the train south from Paris and stepping out of the platform at Nice to warm, bougainvillea-scented air and feeling a sense of infinite possibilities which I've associated with travel, particularly train journeys, ever since. 

In just under four weeks, I covered pretty much every country in western Europe, including Scandinavia, and I still feel giddy with romance when I walk onto the concourse of a railway station and see the clickety-clack board rattling off the destinations; especially on occasions like our honeymoon in 2004, when we motored around Slovenia, took the boat to Venice, then took one of those lovely varnished launches to Santa Lucia Station and walked into the concourse to see on the board: Venice-Simplon Orient-Express, for Paris and London. Best of all, we were on it. 

What was your first travel piece? 
First significant one was a daily series from Canada, where I spent three months on placement in a paper in London, Ontario, the last month of which I spent travelling across the country from Toronto to Vancouver by train, and by bus up to the Yukon and Alaska. That made me appreciate how much travel makes the ordinary extraordinary. For example, I wrote a couple of pieces about the wonder of simply walking to work in 25 below zero temperatures; and yet, if the writers on the paper in Ontario had come to Belfast and walked to work with me, they would have seen things that I'd long stopped seeing. Travel still fills me with that child-like wonder at the world, which you tend to lose as you get older and stay in one place so that it becomes humdrum and taken for granted. 

What’s your favourite city in the world? 
Tough one. I love Barcelona, especially for the utter lunacy of Gaudi's buildings; Kyoto for the exquisite beauty of the Zen temples, tea houses and palaces; Prague for the way you walk around every corner and gasp and Florence for the same reason. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be Vancouver, for the laid-back warmth of the Canadians, the easy, hedonistic lifestyle, the fact that you can go boating in the morning and skiing in the afternoon, and most of all the sheer joy of the train journey from the mountains down to the sea. 

What tips would you have for those wanting to do something similar to your epic motorcycle trek across the Americas (as documented in The Road To Gobblers Knob: From Chile to Alaska on a Motorbike)? 
Make the decision to go no matter what obstacles are placed in your way. If you want to do something badly enough, you can always find a way. Be aware that although motorbikes are about the freedom of the open road, organising adventures on them is about logistical nightmares all tied up with miles of red tape. You will come close to insanity putting it all together, but it will be worth it. 

What’s your favourite book? 
The Sword in the Stone by TH White, about King Arthur growing up before he knew he was to be king. It was turned into an awful Disney film, but it's a magical book. 

What's your favourite film? 
That tends to change from time to time. The first one that had a big impact on me was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with its disturbing message that no matter how sane you are, hanging around with lunatics can drive you mad. And I mean the people who ran the asylum, not the inmates. It's left me with a lifelong healthy disrespect for authority. I love Space Cowboys for its message that you're never too old to be young, and every Christmas Eve Cate (my wife) and I haul out our video of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, plonk an extra-large box of tissues on the sofa, and sit back for a good sniffle. 

What cultural events are you most looking forward to in 2008?
The Leonard Cohen concert in Dublin. I hitched over to a Cohen concert in Manchester one December and spent half the night trying to sleep in a phone box near Carlisle. On the way back the day after the concert, I walked into a motorway cafe off the M6 and he was sitting there eating a box of Maltesers, so I went over and told him how much I'd enjoyed the concert. He asked me to sit down and share the Maltesers, and we chatted for half an hour. He was incredibly decent, good-natured and unassuming, and then he even gave me a lift up the road. Incredible experience. Oh, and the Olympics, if that counts. As the former captain of the Northern Ireland men's volleyball team at the Commonwealths, I'll be watching all the matches and remembering what it was like to be a master of the universe, with that glorious invincibility of youth. 

What Irish cultural figure do you most admire? 
CS Lewis, for having produced The Chronicles of Narnia. Funnily enough, I only read them as an adult, and they captivated me. Also Kenneth Branagh, for making Shakespeare accessible in a way I'd forgotten since Hamlet for A-level. 

What would be your three desert island discs? 
Penguin Cafe Orchestra's eponymous CD for its boundless, eclectic optimism. Sibelius' 'Karelia Suite' for the intermezzo, one of the most stirring pieces of music every written, which makes me think of a horse breaking out of the forest, across a stream and into a sunspilt meadow. And 'Antiphone Blues' by Arne Domnerus.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 
Travel with a good heart, and keep smiling. It's worked in some of the most allegedly dangerous places in the world, like the Baluchistan desert south of Afghanistan, and Colombia. 

If you could write your own epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be?
He made life better. 

Geoff Hill's Way To Go and The Road To Gobblers Knob are out now on Blackstaff Press. His next book, Anyway, Where Was I? Geoff Hill's Alternative A-Z of the World is due to be published by Blackstaff Press in September 2008.